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October 11th, 2010
08:22 AM ET

My Take: Islam is a religion of peace, or it isn't

Editor's Note: Imam Khalid Latif is a chaplain for New York University and Executive Director of NYU's Islamic Center.

By Khalid Latif, Special to CNN

Last week, New York University hosted the Intelligence Squared Debates at its Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Four panelists, two for and two against, presented arguments on the motion of "Islam Is a Religion of Peace."  About 800 showed up to learn the answer.

Problem is, there is no one answer.

The Muslim community is by no means monolithic and viewing us as one is problematic. We are diverse.

Yet we find ourselves in a moment in which we are very narrowly understood. That normative understanding is equated to something radical, despite the fact that 93 percent of Muslims are found to be far from radical according to recent Gallup surveys.

What becomes more problematic is that typically when one of us from that 93 percent steps up to speak, we are vehemently told that we either do not represent Islam or even more absurdly that we are not truly practicing Islam's teachings.

Zeba Khan, a panelist for the "Islam Is a Religion of Peace" last week, was met with such a response. She started off the debate by sharing her personal story about growing up in Ohio, attending a Hebrew Day School, and being raised by Indian parents in a Muslim household. "Just because you may not hear us," said Khan," doesn't mean we are not speaking."

Ayaan Hirsi Ali , speaking against the motion, followed Zeba and immediately said, "The problem with Islam is who speaks for Islam."  She went on to say, "I concede (the radical voice) is a minority," and expressed her desire that someone like Zeba Khan actually would speak for Islam, but, in her opinion, could not and does not.

And so Zeba's voice, her interpretation, and all of her efforts were collectively dismissed since she did not fit into what Hirsi Ali believed Islam to be.

Maajid Nawaz, Zeba Khan's co-panelist for the motion, was dismissed just as easily. "This debate is not about making excuses for terrorism," he said. "This debate acknowledges that Muslims bear a responsibility in reclaiming their faith from a minority."

If anyone understands the issues of that minority voice it is Nawaz. Having been a member of  the political party Hizb ut-Tahrir for 14 years, Nawaz was a founding member in Denmark and Pakistan. In his own words, he eventually served a sentence for four years in an Egyptian prison as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, and during them that time broke away from Hizb ut-Tahrir's ideology.

He has since dedicated his life to counter-radicalism initiatives and seeks to uphold the responsibility that he spoke of through his work. He even uniquely acknowledges the presence of a radical element in Islam and how its misinterpretation is still in fact an interpretation that needs to be dealt with.

Despite this, those opposed to the motion told him that it is his peaceful understanding of Islam that is rooted in misinterpretation, since it does not match up with the interpretation put forth by the radical minority, and thus somehow ignores the fundamentals of Islam since those groups somehow are the end-all be-all of what Islam actually means.

That a peaceful interpretation of the religion, or even one that is non-radical, can only exist by ignoring fundamental texts is flawed in its logic.

Characteristic of any text - whether religious or not - is its ability to be interpreted through the lens of its reader. Interpretations of the Quran that espouse ideas of tolerance, compassion and mercy have existed and continue to exist in the majority of Muslim communities since the advent of Islam 1400 years ago.

As much as Muslims need to acknowledge the existence of a minority voice that is radicalized, so too does a broader society need to acknowledge the existence of a majority voice that is not radicalized and more importantly condemns radical thought. There are those who make Islam to be something restrictive and radical, but there are many, many more who do not.

Moderating the panel last week, ABC News correspondent John Donvan said speaking to those against the motion, "You are making it sound like Islam is what you make it to be. Why then can it not be the peaceful Islam that we see being practiced by so many around the world?"

The answer, Mr. Donvan, is that it can be, and for the majority of us, it is.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Khalid Latif

Editor's Note #2: Bloomberg TV will be airing parts of the debate tonight at 9pm Eastern.  You can see a preview here.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Islam • Muslim • New York • Opinion • United States

soundoff (537 Responses)
  1. Intersting Thought

    So if I say I believe in UFOs flown by hyper-intelligent Gorilla then I am 'crazy' but if you believe in a man that rose from the dead and walks on water... that is just "faith" Seems that all the religious books are written in fairy tale form so that the "children" can understand them.

    Questions: Why are so many mosques built on other religions holy sites? Why doesn't the 93% stand up and stop the 7%. Why do you come to this country if you have fundamental Religious/social issues with our country? Do you realize that your staunch religious practices are holding your back as a society?

    October 11, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
    • ZOMG!

      UFOS ARE BEING FLOWN BY HYPER-INTELLIGENT GORILLAS!!!

      OMG OMG OMG!

      October 11, 2010 at 10:03 pm |
  2. Amica

    The Noble Qur'an states that Muslims will never be accepted by non-Muslims for who they are, UNTIL Muslims begin to practice the religions/faiths of non-Muslims. This is so true today, as it has been for centuries! Because, a Muslim is condemned whether he speaks or not, whether he is a radical or not.
    One example is President Obama. Based on his own self declaration as a Christian, as well as his practice of Christianity both publically and privetly, it does not matter. He has that one thing, "Hussain", in his name. And as long that name stands there, he will always be perceived as other than a Christian. He can go to church all he wants, eat as much pork, pray to Jesus as much as he cans, maybe even carry huge cross on his neck, he still will be viewed as a "closet" Muslim.

    October 11, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
    • Maybe

      Amica,

      So, if Obama changes his middle name to "John", that would please you?

      And Heheheh, Muslims believe that ALL people are born Muslim... and that they just need to 'revert' to their original nature.

      Stop the Insanity!

      October 11, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Xenofobia aside, every country has its laws and traditions. If you do not follow the laws and traditions, you will bound to end up in difficulties with the majority. This applies to every country today, irrespective of the majority religion. The way you use the word 'Muslim' suggests a more generalized meaning of a person who acts in the proper way, irrespective of religion. This is somewhat independent of the laws and traditions, and a very similar idea to that of the early Church of the Christian faith during the Roman empire. Perhaps one day all Muslims realize that the greatest religious battle they can fight is within their own mind. From this realization rises compassion for others and sense of peace as we all fight in the same battle.

      October 11, 2010 at 5:12 pm |
    • Amica

      Maybe, that is exactly my point. A person does not have to be a Muslim, but if they have an "M' of a Muslim in their name or their life, they will not be accepted. I am a Muslim too, by the way:) And I speak from personal experience. Even if Muslims would to go on a rampage destroying "all radical" in their path to prove how peaceful they really are, it would NEVER please non-Muslims so long as we Muslims consider ourselves Muslims.

      October 11, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  3. J Davis

    So what is the author's conclusion? It's no wonder so many people do not understand Islam, when people who claim to represent the religion write such non-sensical essays and expect to be taken seriously.

    October 11, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
  4. Jason

    Religion of peace ??? My as*.. Gimme a break.. How do you explain the beheadings, torture, etc that goes on in every single Islamic nation ?? Women are treated like crap, have no rights.. Muslims are ready to kill if someone targets their religious sentiments.. Name a single religion on earth (other than Islam) which teaches such hatred.. there are none..

    October 11, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  5. billp

    Christians understand that when a Christian does terrible things (such as Hitler and Stalin, a Roman Catholic and Jesuit, respectively), they are not true Christians at heart. When a Muslim does terrible things, he is showing the true colors of the entire faith.

    October 11, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
    • Alxandro

      If a person, that by chance happens to be Christian, commits an atrocious act, doesn't mean the atrocity was commited in the name of Christ.
      Big difference from the radical Muslims.
      Example, Hitler's driving factor was hate, not Jesus?

      October 11, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  6. Tim

    "The militant Moslem is the person who beheads the infidel, while the moderate Moslem holds the feet of the
    victim".
    Marco Polo, world traveler

    October 11, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  7. kls817

    It would be great if peaceful muslims take back their religion, but for now the radicals are in control and the "peaceful" muslims support them by their silence.
    Atrocities by muslims happen daily, and we never hear any load condemnations from the 'peaceful' muslims.
    But whenever someone draws a picture of their prophet or threatens to burn the Koran, they are overwhelmed with outrage.
    The message is that the pictures and book burnings defile Islam, but barbaric killings in the name of Islam do not.

    October 11, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
    • heretofore

      great comment!

      October 11, 2010 at 7:41 pm |
    • azizalmighty

      The so called peaceful muslims support radicals not by only silence but by giving them financial support and by protecting them as is the case with osama who is in some muslim country under the protection of that country's peace loving government and people. I know that general consensus is that he is in pakistan under the protection of an ally of the western governments but he could be back in saudi arabia or in his favorite egypt under the protection of those allies of the west and so called peaceful muslims.

      October 12, 2010 at 7:04 am |
  8. MARIA

    ISLAM IS A RELIGION WHO'S DEADSET ON KILLING EVERY SINGLE non-muslim AMERICAN in this country. If you ever ask an Islamist who has become an American ..'If your Imam comes to you and say that you must kill a non-muslim American" or you'll be kicked out of that radical religion. What do you think they'll say? They will never stand for America as they hate us and what we stand for. They are here only as a stealth strategy to kill every single one of us and they won't give up until they do. Wake up America. Stop with the white-guilt already and thinking that you must be tolerant of everyone...because these islamists are just planning your demise!

    October 11, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
  9. pitung

    I believe that no religion teach their followers to commit crime and violence towards other religions, including Muslims, but I do not know what the base of the Muslim faith is. Christianity is based on: " Love one another as you love yourself"
    However, Muslims strongly believed pleople of other religions as infidels and should be killed – hope this is not true!
    Anyone can explain this?

    October 11, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
    • azizalmighty

      It is true that islam/muslims want all non- muslims, they call infidels, dead or subjugated or converted to islam. It started by mohammad who invented islam. He killed and expelled all jews and christians from arabia; and told all arab infidels to accept islam or die. That is why I believe that muslim's allah is satan/devil and islam is of the devil.

      October 11, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  10. Alxandro

    If the 93% cannot seem to reclaim their faith from the radical minority that continues to give Islam a bad name, how can the infidel expect to stop the Islamization of the world.

    October 11, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  11. Mortalc01l

    Theism: Theism, in the broadest sense, is the belief that at least one deity exists.[1][2] In a more specific sense, theism refers to a doctrine concerning the nature of a monotheistic God and his relationship to the universe.[3] Theism, in this specific sense, conceives of God as personal, present and active in the governance and organization of the world and the universe.

    Therefore "A Theism" (atheism) is the lack of that belief.. Therefore it is NOT a belief, rather a LACK of a belief, i.e the exact opposite of belief.

    October 11, 2010 at 3:23 pm |
  12. scott

    I guess my big question is... If the 'violent radicals' are the minority, why is their no moderate islamic state where nonmuslims aren't persecuted and killed by the gov't? I mean, surely if they are the minority then the majority could have one gov't wear a woman could not wear a headdress for instance, or someone could be openly gay, or simply not be muslim, without fear of the gov't.

    October 11, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
    • kls817

      Turkey comes the closest to this, but there are still a lot of extremest there who want to implement sharia law. We will have to wait and see. But there does not appear to be any trend in the Islamic world toward rights for religious minorities.

      October 11, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
  13. azizalmighty

    Islam isn't a religion of peace. Anyone who says otherwise either have no knowledge of islam's history or is lying. period
    Without violence islam/muslims would never have conquered arabia and would never have come out of arabia. period
    The problem is that islam/muslims like/want rights for themselves but do not like/want to give same rights to others e.g. if I believe that allah is satan and islam/muslims believe that allah is god then they must accept that I have just as much right to believe that allah is satan as islam/muslims have the right to believe that allah is god and same goes for mohammad being false and islam itself being false etc. etc.
    They resort to violence and intimidation through threats and other means by calling it blasphemous to believe that allah is satan and islam/mohammad are false because they do not accept that I have the right to believe what I believe is the Truth even if my Truth is opposite to what they believe to be true.

    October 11, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  14. Bob Dole

    Hi everyone great discussion by the way. I thought it was originally a on what the article is about or for that matter what anything is about. So here I go throwing my eggs into the big cake of confusion and Off based spinning of discussions.

    If your a atheist.. and you believe there is nothing out there, then is that in fact considered a Belief and being a Atheist in fact you would put your faith that your judgment is correct in that . Does that not make it another religion lol Just like the one in the movie Conan the Barbarian where he went up against Thulsa Doom who’s religion was based on a snake god Set and to truly attain a higher understanding you must let go and believe in nothing lol. Anyway great movie and often at times who you are and what you are truly are represented by the Majority of what i bout Islam but hey we all like to change subjects and not stay focused s projected from or about the people you associate with.

    Next up how about them hydrogen cars.

    Anyway anyone can argue pretty well much about anything but its the people that can see past it that will endure.

    I love Technology WHOS WITH ME!

    October 11, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  15. Jake

    How can people (non-muslims) worship man, nature etc. Don't they have any intellect? How can they worship these created things? If non-muslims think that they are intelligent, then they should seriously consider what they worship if they have any sense. Satan has led the non-muslims astray so they always blame the muslims as much as they can. I am muslim now and many people are following the true religion, Islam and leaving their previous way of life.

    October 11, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
    • Maybe

      Jake,

      How can people with intellect believe in supernatural beings, not to mention believing that these beings have human characteristics?

      October 11, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  16. Jake

    Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and other ways are hoaxes except Islam. Islam is the true religion. It has already been proved.

    October 11, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
    • Maybe

      Jake,
      "Islam is the true religion. It has already been proved."

      No, it hasn't been proved. No belief in the supernatural has been proved.

      October 11, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
  17. 550

    muslims are terrorists and should be banished from the US

    October 11, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  18. richard

    The problem is, when polls are taken in the middle east of Muslims and the question is "Is terrorism justified sometimes for some reason" and the over whelming majority says yes.. then the truth is, the MAJORITY are violent and radical.
    Terrorism is never justified for any reason whatsoever, and to believe so , is to believe that violence is an answer to a problem when propagated against civilians. The proper definition of terrorism is the specific targeting of civilians with violence to effect fear and/or political change. It is not collateral casulties/damage due to military and/or anti terrorism operations. So the belief by an overwhelming number of Muslims in the Middle east that violence against civilians can be justified is radical and violent. So it is, or at least the majority of it's practicionars are believers in violence, thus Islam is a religion of violence, period.

    October 11, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  19. stevie68a

    Religion is a word game. "Prophet" means "Profit", your "soles" are on the bottom of your feet, (religion collects souls) and the
    temple they speak of is the sides of your head, your temples. christians and muslims alike should consider that they have been
    fooled.

    October 11, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
    • Bobby

      If Islam is a religion of peace, what was the method Mohammad use to convert those he conquered or enslaved? If you didn’t convert you were killed which is still the philosophy practiced today. I have never read anything about Jesus killing someone who he couldn’t convert unlike Mohammad.

      October 11, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
    • Wacko

      Put the glass down, take a deep breath and you'll be ok.

      All these terms are Latin based words and don't apply to other languages.

      October 11, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
  20. George

    I have a question for any Muslim. I am not a Muslim, am I an infidel? You can answer this yes or no, but not a long drawn out politically correct answer. If the answer is yes, then I have quite a few other questions for you. Any Muslim wish to answer?

    October 11, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
    • George

      I guess no Muslim wants to answer.

      October 11, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
    • DNA

      George,

      I am a Muslim and just wanted to let you know that Muslims didn't come up with the term "infidel." That was the creation of the 15th century Catholic church. Muslims use the word "kafir" (which roughly translates to disbeliever). However, the term only applies to people who do not believe in one God.

      In either situations, its irrelevant. Islam teaches that we will all be rewarded for our good deeds and punished for our bad ones regardless of who we believe in.

      November 10, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.